BILLINGS – Cade Nelson burst through the line of scrimmage and as his legs kept churning up yards — 22 of them — his brain kept churning out thoughts.
About midway through the season, the Billings West senior running back was trying to come back from a broken scapula and was contemplating whether it was even worth it to finish out the year. But several weeks later, on 3rd-and-6 on a snowy Friday evening at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium, Nelson’s athletic offensive line gave him an opening.
So he took it, got the first down, and one victory formation play later the Golden Bears were celebrating as Class AA football champions, 20-14 victors over Kalispell Flathead.
“Pretty much my only thought process was don’t fumble,” Nelson said. “Do not fumble. So once I got that first down … we’re state champions, that was all that was going through my mind. It was such an amazing feeling.”
Jesse Owens scored on a nine-yard run and Josh Erbacher threw touchdown passes to Owens and Lucas Gibb to help give the Golden Bears their first title since 2005.
Blake Counts rushed for 182 yards, and quarterback Jaden MacNeil ran for a score and threw for another for the Braves, who trailed 14-0 and 21-7 but never went away.
They controlled the second half, and a long pass from MacNeil to Anthony Jones and a long run by Counts set the Braves up at the West 7-yard line trailing 20-14 with a chance to take the lead late.
But the Bears’ defense held, forcing a turnover on downs at the 8, and a couple nice runs from Nelson helped run out the clock. Flathead (9-4) was the fourth seed in the playoffs, and came to Billings having upset No. 1 Bozeman last week.
“Saying goodbye to those seniors is tough,” Flathead coach Kyle Samson said. “I just told them I love them, I’m so proud of them and they have nothing to hang their head about. They fought every inch; for everything they did tonight, I love this team.”
Everything was going West’s way early when Flathead bobbled the opening kickoff and the Bears’ Kade Wilcox recovered at the 20. Two plays later Owens scored on an end around, and less than a minute in the Bears were up 7-0.
West (12-1) scored on its next possession on a 29-yard pass from Erbacher to Lucas and it looked like the game might be a rout.
But MacNeil scored on a 7-yard keeper to get the Braves within 14-7, before West answered on a five-play drive when Erbacher found Owens from 25 yards out. The PAT was blocked and the Bears took a 20-7 lead into halftime.
Erbacher completed 7 of 14 passes for 129 yards.
As the second half went on Counts, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior, got stronger and stronger. He carried a heavy workload on a 22-play, 94-yard drive that culminated in a MacNeil-to- Jones 7-yard touchdown pass with just over 10 minutes left in the game.
But the Braves could get no more, thanks to the Bears’ late defensive stand.
“They definitely had momentum at the end, but we dug down deep and listened to what our coaches told us to do,” said West’s Wilcox, a defensive back and linebacker. “We got in the right spots and we won, so it was quite the game. It was fun.”
While the celebration on the field continued on, West coach Rob Stanton stood serenely on the sideline several minutes later, watching it all continue to unfold. He talked about the work ethic of his team and coaches, how difficult it was to stop the hard-running Counts, and how fitting it was to have Nelson, who gained 46 yards, carrying the ball on the season’s final possession.
Then Stanton, whose team finished on an 11-game winning streak, talked about the “pure joy” he had for his players.
“I never want to say anyone deserves anything, I always like to say they earned it,” Stanton said, summing it all up. “And they earned the 2018 state championship.”